Saturday, March 14, 2020

Church, Wash Your Hands

I spent most of last weekend on the couch. Thursday morning while I was at work a tickle lodged in the back of my throat. By ten o’clock it had split into a nagging cough. My eyes were a bit watery. Goose bumps bloomed beneath my sweatshirt then receded so quickly, I wondered if I was imagining them. I powered through, washing my hands a hundred times. “Are you getting sick?” my boss asked. “I might be,” I answered. I wasn’t sure.

I tucked myself into bed that evening and stayed put while my symptoms ramped up then faded. “I’m cozy-sick,” I texted a long-distance friend. I was glad to be home, glad for the rest and for stretchy knits, thrilled my family was doting on me. 

By Monday, I was back to work at the soup kitchen. The air had absorbed a tinge of suspicion in the preceding days. By Monday, chills were beyond suspect. If you coughed, you went home. We commiserated as we cooked for the crowd, brainstorming for the possibility of disaster. What about our daily Meals-on-Wheels clients, and the retirees who deliver their food? What might become of our friends who hover just north of survival, relying on free lunches to help them get by?

I sealed crackers into Ziplock baggies, suddenly hyper-aware that one of my kids is immune-compromised, chiseled away from the monolithic “children” who are assumed immune to the worst of Covid-19. At the end of my shift, I drove straight to Kroger, refilling the prescription that keeps him stable and grabbing two large packs of toilet paper for good measure. 

On the short drive home, I watched a traffic light turn yellow. Two cars caught it just in time. Another hedged his bets and sped through as it flashed to red. A fourth car followed, and I wondered why it seemed like a chance worth taking. I thought about the long line of cars ahead of me, how precariously life dangles from the edges of ordinary days. One minute, you’re stocking up on toilet paper and trying to keep your wits. The next, someone takes an unnecessary risk, and you’re the one who pays.

Our world has changed in under a week.
Is the church paying attention? 

I’ve fielded a smattering of reactions from good, Christian people recently that can be tidily summarized as, “This is all being blown out of proportion.” I read an op-ed urging Christians to “behave differently” in the face of fear and danger. Don’t be cowardly. Don’t be dramatic. The world around us is panicking, the author wrote, so we should not. The proof of this “difference” would not be a daily routine marked by stark modification or polite social distancing. For true believers, the only option is to soldier forth. They will know we are Christians by our stubbornness. (If not that, then perhaps our blind dismissal of the facts.) 

I’ve watched people who love God and champion life throw their hands up in disgust, not alarm. They tick down the list of popular conspiracy theories, tapping the tabletop for emphasis. They spit mouthfuls of warped statistics and lean on the wobbly myth of exceptionalism. They imply my concern means a lack of trust at best, an indicator of idiocy at worst. 

Each time a Christian says they aren’t worried, unfair though it may be, I walk away angry. We have not learned our lesson. The body of Christ is simply not interested in breaking for the sake of its sister. It is not inclined to peel off its boot-straps and wade into the murk. It won’t concede defeat, not of body, not of will. At every turn, it chooses power over frailty, gas-lighting the kingdom of God by calling it faith. 

Steadily, American Christians (mostly white, mostly Evangelical) have beat the drum that it is not the government’s job to care for the sick. "The task belongs to the church," they say. Cautiously, I agree, jamming my stake in this cracked corner of common ground and raising my flag.

In Jeremiah 29:7 God sounds the alarm for an embodied concern for our community. “Its welfare will determine your welfare.Essentially, if even one of us is sick we’re all sunk. Right now, at a moment when protecting life converges with caring for the sick, we have the opportunity to prove we take God at his word.

I’m scheduled to preach the sermon for our small congregation this Sunday. The lectionary lists John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well, as the Gospel text. It’s one of my favorites. Here, we observe the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person. We watch as God-in-flesh meets a woman, considered weak and unworthy, in the midst of her suffering. He mirrors her aloneness. He listens. He sees her through the lens of compassion, acknowledging the most painful threads of her story. He does not ignore her, make fun of her, silence her, or tell her to settle down. He offers himself, living water.

The foundation of my faith requires that I look to Jesus as my example, that I allow his life to form the blood and bones of my own. Inconveniently, this almost always means serving others at the peril of my personhood. The bonds of my baptism ask that I uplift the cause of the collective over my own unique protection. We Christians tend to like this angle when it comes to war and the unborn. But our affections cool when it might mean looking weak or foolish.

It turns out, I won’t be preaching this Sunday. I won't be attending church, and I hope you won’t, either. Because today, our world is desperate for unflinching leadership and it looks like a space between bodies and a healthy dose of alarm. This minute, we form a vast communion of the panic-shocked and unless people of faith are willing to forego their egos, alliances, and offering plates, more of us will die. 

The example we must offer is not one shaped of forced smiles and head pats. Dismissiveness, mockery, and a veneer of toughness will not save our souls. We need courageous leaders willing to say “Stay home,” then go and do likewise. I'm thrilled to see many doing this, but it will take all of us.

Yes, it's time to discern creative care for the fragile; meals for the strictly home-bound elderly, sacrificial childcare for the single mom whose minimum wage job does not shut down just because school does, financial support for those whose work is unceremoniously halted and now face collapse. 

We have our work cut out for us, and it should cost us dearly. But first, we've got to take this seriously.

So, let the air inside our buildings go stale as we go about the business of protecting the frail. Let our own lights flicker and our smooth sermons go unsaid as we roll up our sleeves and acknowledge the spiritual currency of caution and tenderness. 

In the midst global devastation and personal loss, may this be the moment we signal our allegiance to the one who entrusted us to each other. 

Living water is still here for the taking, if only we are willing to draw up our buckets and be washed clean.